LFF Film Review: Carol (★★★½)

BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: It’s an inevitability that Carol will face categorisation as an LGBT film, but that’s not the limits of how it should be considered. It’s simply a heartfelt and deeply human love story where the principle couple confronts insurmountable odds. In Carol’s case, these obstacles are the prejudices of the time and culture they live in. The film frames this discrimination in a tangible and legal way, as the titular Carol is accused of a morally indecent lifestyle by her ex-husband in order to win custody of their daughter. The film isn’t interested in being a courtroom drama though, instead focusing on the blossoming relationship between Rooney Mara’s Therese and Cate Blanchett’s Carol.

Todd Haynes is known for his heightened style that evokes the melodrama of Douglas Sirk, for instance. His 2002 film Far From Heaven feels plucked from the cinema of the 1950s. However, Carol is a film that feels plucked from the New York streets of the 1950s as the aesthetic here is surprisingly naturalistic. It doesn’t quite breach a documentary-esque style with Edward Lachman’s understated and pleasantly grainy cinematography, but it all comes organically and authentically with the elegant fashion of production and costume design and the atmosphere that its cold Christmas setting provides. It’s a very restrained film – as there are only two particularly intimate scenes – but the film carries an air of sexual and romantic tension throughout.

As Carol, Cate Blanchett challenges her polar opposite and equally excellent work with Haynes as a Bob Dylan incarnation in I’m Not There here. By nature of the film’s structure, the first half is in the perspective of Therese and the second focuses on the perspective of Carol. There’s an interesting inaccessibility about Blanchett in the first half that draws you into Therese’s infatuation. Mara, one of the most promising actresses of this decade since her small memorable part in The Social Network, uses her own reserved detachness – something she’s been frequently criticised for – to her own advantage. To watch someone like Therese open up after being so repressed is thoroughly cathartic.

However, Blanchett whips the film from under her feet in the second half. She litters the first half of the film with nuanced hints and clues to her past desires, also communicating so much with very little. She’s elusive, but Mara is a key source of intrigue at that point due to the honesty in her performance and unexpected dry wit. Once Carol is struggling to deal with her own internal conflicts, Blanchett is on fire and burns the house down with her ultimate rebuttal of the accusations against her. Kyle Chandler, her suffering husband soon to be ex-husband, shows such painful anguish in his brief outbursts. It’s a measured performance that anchors the film and the stakes of the relationships. Every performance of the ensemble – from extras to bit parts – are delivering among their finest work.

It’s an all-rounder in terms of Oscar-contention, with Haynes perhaps being a more likely bet for Best Director than the film is for Best Picture. Blanchett has won too recently but if Weinstein works his magic, Mara would be a strong contender in either leading or supporting. Phyllis Nagy will certainly duel with Aaron Sorkin in Best Adapted Screenplay, even if her work is more patient, while the production and costume design ought to destroy competition. A sure bet should be Carter Burwell for his beautiful score that sunk my chest with its few powerful notes. It’s an achingly tender film that will be timeless, even if it doesn’t resonate with everyone with such specificity. Carol shouldn’t just be a statement for our time and a condemnation for past mistakes, it’s a demonstration that love is a part of the human condition regardless of sexuality.